I did not enjoy my service in the Israeli military between 1983-1986; in fact, I hated it. But I do know that it taught me many lessons, and I have long thought that my experiences in the army have helped me both in life and in science. The following is an example of one such instance. Many years ago, in 1984 to be precise, I stood in the Negev desert on a cold, dusty army base at attention for an inspection.
Yours truly, circa 1984.
I was an artillery soldier, not yet having gone through command training to become a non-commissioned officer, and the inspection was to be carried out by the general who was the commander of the entire Artillery Corps. All of the soldiers were tense—to date we had only had inspections from higher officers from our own unit—such as the unit commander. So there was a great deal of fear that the general might punish us for doing a poor job, by revoking leave privileges, etc.
We had been cleaning our weapons, checking our equipment and readiness all night. Morning had finally arrived, and we were standing by our artillery pieces, in full battle gear, at attention. The general strode up and stopped 2 soldiers over from me and asked: “How many bullets in each clip?” The soldier replied, “Thirty-five.” One of the things about Hebrew, the language in which this all took place, is that every word has a masculine and feminine form, including numbers. And since the plural noun “bullets” is masculine, the masculine form for 35 should have been used. But wasn’t. The general quickly corrected the soldier, and stated the masculine form of the number. He then moved on to the next soldier, who promptly made the very same mistake, and was subsequently corrected. The general then turned to me, and of course, I answered “35” using the correct masculine form. Hearing my Hebrew accent, the general asked me where I was from, and how long I’d been in Israel. I told him that I was from Canada and had been in Israel less than a year. He said to me, in a loud voice meant for everyone in the vicinity to hear: “You’ve been here less than a year, and already your Hebrew is better than these soldiers who have been here all their lives.” When I tried to point out that I had the benefit of hearing him correct the two soldiers, he stopped me and said: “That is the point—you learn from others’ mistakes, without making your own.”
To some extent, this life-lesson provided by a general from a far-away desert scene, has been a pillar or hallmark of my life and scientific career. Indeed, if someone else made that mistake, why not capitalize and take advantage of that?
As a graduate student I did a lot of protein work, separating them by electrophoresis, and examining them by immunoblotting. These techniques require a step where proteins are transferred by electric current from a “gel” to a piece of filter paper. One of the most common errors is hooking up the electric current—nearly every researcher has at some point done this in the reverse direction, so that all the proteins float off into the buffer instead of into the filter paper. Throughout my bench career, I have been wary and every time I connected those wires to the power supply, I was able to remind myself of the “35 bullets story” and take an extra minute to make sure the orientation was correct, so as not to make a mistake.
There are countless ways in which people can learn from others’ mistakes—in science and in life overall. Unfortunately (for others), someone else’s pain can prevent our own pain. But the trick is to recognize how others have erred and to correct that error in our own thinking and behavior. This is not always so simple.
I will end this little parable with a “joke” I once heard—certainly not a pedagogical joke, but it does illustrate this point again. A mother brings her child to kindergarten for the very first day. She says to the teacher: “Johnny is a very sensitive child—if he misbehaves or does anything wrong, please shout at the child beside him. That’ll ensure that he behaves properly.” Regardless of the cruelty of this little joke, it is incumbent upon us to “be Johnnies” and to really learn from the teacher who shouts at the neighboring child. It will certainly make our science move faster.